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Literature: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

"What the hell do you think spies are!? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?"
Alec Leamas

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is the third novel by John le Carré.

After the death of a number of British-run agents in East Berlin, SIS officer and head of Berlin station Alec Leamas is recalled to London by the head of the service, Control. When Leamas refuses a demotion, Control then suggests to him a plan to bring about the downfall of Hans-Dieter Mundt, the agent of East German Intelligence responsible for the death of Leamas's agents. But the mission is not what it seems...

Reflecting the cold and somewhat inhuman nature of intelligence work in the early days of the cold war, the novel suggests the uncomfortable thought that the difference between the Western intelligence agencies and their opponents was very little indeed, with both resorting to underhanded methods to achieve their aims.

A screen adaptation of the novel starring Richard Burton as Leamas and directed by Martin Ritt was released in 1965.

Tropes:

  • Early-Installment Weirdness: George Smiley is a lot less humane and quite ruthless in his supporting role. The novel does explain that he's left the Circus due to moral issues, and that Control has left him in the dark over the nastier aspects of this particular mission.
  • Fake Defector: Leamas has to pretend to quit the SIS (spectacularly) and join the East German Intelligence Service to pull this plan off.
  • May-December Romance: Leamas is in his late forties or early fifties and has a divorce under his belt. Liz Gold is an early 20's librarian.
  • One Last Job: The title refers to Leamas's desire to quit the spy game; he'll be able to after he completes this job.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Not in this story, but the story inflicts one on Le Carre's first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead. In the previous novel, the primary antagonist, Mundt, is mentioned as having escaped capture and returned to East Germany. In this novel, The Reveal is that Mundt was in fact captured and turned into a double agent.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: One of the people Leamas works with in East German intelligence is a True Believer in Communism.
  • Worthy Adversary: The same. They get on very well together and like each other as persons, though Leamas has the duty to feed him false information.

Spider KissLiterature of the 1960sThe Stainless Steel Rat
The Spirit Of The BeehiveCreator/The Criterion CollectionStagecoach
The Sound of MusicFilms of the 1960sThat Darn Cat!
Spy HighSpy LiteratureThe Squad

alternative title(s): The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
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